thumb down thumb upThey say “Everyone’s a critic.”

I don’t buy that. I think everyone's a naysayer. Good critics are few and far between.

But unfortunately, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary could not care less about my opinion.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the noun “critic” in two ways: 1) a: one who expresses a reasoned opinion on any matter especially involving a judgment of its value, truth, righteousness, beauty, or technique b: one who engages often professionally in the analysis, evaluation, or appreciation of works of art or artistic performances 2) one given to harsh or captious judgment.

If I had my druthers, the first definition would be the only definition for "critic." Unfortunately, Merriam-Webster hasn’t hired me yet, so the latter definition remains on the books—and that’s the one that gives critics a bad reputation. I would prefer to call the people in definition #2 “naysayers.”

Cultivate the Critics

  • Critics can be some of our best teachers. Acquire a few of these deliberately any time you are trying to learn something new—especially choose some whose emotional intelligence enables them to position their critiques judiciously and graciously. As you find ones you trust, with whom you interact well, never underestimate the value they could contribute to cross-domain research. In other words, that school teacher friend could know more about customer service than you anticipated. Your engineer friend may have some great suggestions about your website.
  • Critics can save you heartache. Even if their intent is negative, if their observations are accurate, it is valuable information for you to know, grow from and respect. Even if the feedback undermines the success of your current idea, project or event, it can be stored as a “best practice” for future reference.
  • Consider that, for well-versed critics, problems or errors may just jump out and slap them in the face. Assume positive intent—this tendency to recognize gaps or issues may have less to do with evil intent to see challenges and far more to do with training and the acumen that comes from success and failure—also known as experience.
  • Encourage your critics as a valuable resource. The critic role can be a challenging one, and it is often under-valued. Not everyone in your organization can see some of the insights a critic may bring. If you do not value your critics, they may either clam up to "fit in" with your culture or attrite to join organizations where their input is valued. Either is your loss.

Nix the Naysayers from your circle of influence. First, consider the source. If the person does not have the background to provide a “reasoned” opinion, weight their opinion accordingly. Similarly, if a person is inclined to captious judgment (defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “marked by an often ill-natured inclination to stress faults and raise objections” or “calculated to confuse, entrap, or entangle in argument”), count them out. This is why innovation authors sometimes write about the ills of killer phrases such as “You never…,” “The boss will never go for it,” “We’ve always done it this way,” etc. (Whatagreatidea 2010). Model and reward a "can-do" attitude.

Learn to spot the difference between a critic and a naysayer. A critic can look just like a naysayer, and vice versa. Don’t assume you know the difference; ask probing questions, and resist the urge to ignore the answers. Consider your own emotional state. If you know there is a problem with your hypothesis, opinion or pet cause, own up to it and toughen up that thin skin. They are just saying what you already know. Or, better yet, fix the problem before you “vet” the idea.

Learn skills to become a better critic. Assuming you already have experience in your domain, critics should next consider how to position their feedback in a way that will best influence the recipient—not necessarily the way you would like to receive the feedback, but the way the recipient would be most likely to accept it. Ever heard someone proudly say, “I tells it as I sees it?” Consider this less of a blunt Golden Rule situation (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and more of a servant leadership issue (“Do unto others as they would have you do unto them”). To win friends and influence enemies, graciously consider their conversational and interaction styles over your own.

Next step: How do you respond to those pesky questions about your idea or performance? Are they feedback dressed up in a supposedly palatable dressing? How do you ask questions well? How do you assess the question behind the question? I’ll explore this soon in a blog covering QBQ! The Question Behind the Question and the “Five Why’s,” a technique pioneered in root cause analysis and often used in Six Sigma and Lean applications.


Captious. (2010). Merriam-Webster (An Encyclopedia Company), retrieved from

Critic. (2010). Merriam-Webster (An Encyclopedia Company), retrieved from

The top 10 killer phrases. (2010).Whatagreatidea, retrieved from